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Why the GOP is banking on Catholics

The Republican Party used to be the preserve of Anglo-Saxon Protestants, says Tim Stanley, but it no longer shuns the Catholic ‘hordes’

By on Friday, 30 March 2012

Republican challenger Rick Santorum is one of two Catholics among the frontrunners to take on Barack Obama in the US presidential elections in November (PA)

Republican challenger Rick Santorum is one of two Catholics among the frontrunners to take on Barack Obama in the US presidential elections in November (PA)

The Republican Party used to be the exclusive preserve of America’s White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Yet this year the three men dominating the GOP primaries have been a Mormon and two Catholics. The candidacy of Rick Santorum (a cradle Catholic of Italian descent) has been defined by his views on natural law, promoted by a set of uncompromising positions on abortion, contraception and homosexuality. Newt Gingrich, a convert, has lamented the French Revolution for giving the world “secular humanism”. Because Newt is Newt, he’s rolled out a whole line of merchandise to promote his new faith. At one rally, reporters spotted a billboard advertising a documentary about John Paul II’s 1979 pilgrimage to Poland, grandly titled Nine Days that Changed the World… Hosted by Newt and Calista Gingrich. The ad, which gave the unfortunate impression that Newt had personally entertained the Pope in Warsaw with tea and cake, became the butt of journalists’ jokes.

Roughly a quarter of this season’s GOP’s primary voters have been Catholic. The party’s leadership is crowded by them – including House Majority Leader John Boehner, chairman of the House Committee on the Budget Paul Ryan and Senator Marco Rubio, who is often tipped to be the 2012 vice-presidential nominee. For the first time in living memory, there are nearly as many Catholics in the Republican House delegation as there are in the Democratic delegation. How has this happened and what does it mean for the 2012 election?

The Republican Protestants of the 19th century had regarded the “hordes” of European Catholics arriving at Ellis Island, New York as importers of crime, disease and “un-American” ideas. Driven into the arms of the comparatively tolerant Democratic Party, Catholic immigrants found a home in liberalism and the labour movement. The first Catholic presidential nominee, Al Smith in 1928, was a Democrat. The first Catholic elected to the White House, Jack Kennedy in 1960, was a Democrat. For many, the words “Catholic” and “Democrat” were synonymous.

Ironically, the first Republican to challenge that consensus was the man who Kennedy beat in 1960: Richard Nixon. As the Democrats of the 1960s embraced feminism and arms talks with the Soviet Union, so Nixon spoke out against abortion and chided “hippies” for accepting Communist domination of Catholic eastern Europe. Nixon wasn’t just playing a political numbers game. He was also personally frustrated by the way that mainline Protestants seemed to embrace the cultural revolution of the 1960s and he was impressed with how resolutely the Catholic Church resisted it. He told a friend and adviser, Chuck Colson: “I have thought seriously about converting to Catholicism… I might have done it if I wasn’t afraid that people would say it was political… they would say there goes Tricky Dick Nixon trying to win the Catholic vote.”

Nixon never converted, but he did convert plenty of Democrats. In 1972 he won the votes of 60 per cent of America’s Catholics.

The Watergate scandal ended Nixon’s experiment in outreach. Thereafter, it wasn’t the GOP establishment that promoted a new accord between Catholics and Protestants. Surprisingly, it was the party’s Evangelicals. For the Fundamentalists and Charismatics of the 1980s, Pope John Paul II’s anti-Communism made him a hero to rival Ronald Reagan. Fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell described the President and the Pope as “the two greatest men of my lifetime”. Recognising that an effective fight against Communism and creeping cultural change required coalition building on the Right, Falwell was at the centre of a concerted effort in the 1980s to unite once-warring Christian churches around social issues. Although his Moral Majority campaign was started by Protestants, by the mid-1980s 30 per cent of its donations came from Catholics. In 1986, Falwell accepted an invitation to speak at Notre Dame University and denounced anti-Catholicism among Protestants as un-christian. Moral Majority, and its successor organisation the Christian Coalition, were models of ecumenical engagement, the first stage in a new project of “multicultural conservatism” that would make the Christian Right a force to be reckoned with.

Catholics brought two unique gifts to the resurgent social Right. The first was discipline. Evangelical activists were notoriously erratic because the Holy Spirit could lead them to do one thing one day and the opposite the next. By contrast, Catholics were used to working within a hierarchical organisation and to taking orders. The Catholics who entered the GOP’s ranks in the 1990s proved enthusiastic and highly disciplined.

Second, the Catholics brought intellectual tradition. Whenever Evangelicals argued for a political position, they tended to claim authority from the Bible or the Holy Spirit. Catholics argued on the basis of the far more tangible concept of natural law. For example, evangelicals opposed abortion because they insisted that termination was a violation of the Sixth Commandment. In contrast, Catholics had been working with the fashionable language of “human rights” for decades and were quick to extend it to the abortion debate. Catholic concepts of “personhood” or “human dignity” were far more popular, even democratic, ways of framing the right to life issue than biblical literalism.

The alliance between evangelicals and Catholics bore fruit in the administration of George W Bush. His White House took a tough stance against gay marriage and euthanasia, encouraged the Church to participate in welfare programmes, and promoted a vision of “compassionate conservatism” that arguably matched the spirit of Catholic social teaching. His pitch paid off. In 2004 Bush beat John Kerry among Catholic voters, 52-47 per cent – despite the fact that Kerry was a proud Catholic who never travelled without his rosary. When Bush visited Pope Benedict in 2008, Italian newspapers were awash with rumours that he was considering converting to Catholicism. As he ascended the steps to the Pope’s library in the Apostolic Palace, Bush was heard to whisper “What an honour!” As far as we know, Dubya remains a Protestant.

Through a Nixonian mix of cynicism and Romanticism, Catholicism has thus become a part of the fabric of the Republican Party. This means that its brand of social conservatism – once thought to be under threat from the more libertarian Tea Party tradition – is here to stay. Every Republican candidate opposed Barack Obama’s attempt to compel Catholic organisations to provide contraception through their employees’ health insurance. That marks a reversal from the historical WASP preference for widely available birth control and, in the eyes of many liberal critics, a craven attempt to win the endorsement of the American Catholic Church. Even the moderate Mitt Romney, whose wife once donated to Planned Parenthood, has embraced the Catholic position.

But the growing influence of the Catholic Church could move the GOP in a more progressive direction on one issue: immigration. The Republicans know that they have to reach out to America’s growing Hispanic population if they are to recapture the White House. On this subject, the Catholic Church has consistently asked that greater compassion be shown for those fleeing drug wars and poverty to start a new life in the US. Embracing that position would create a new generation of Hispanic Catholic converts to the Republican Party. It would amount to a final farewell to its WASP, anti-immigration heritage and would complete the Catholicisation of Republicanism by stealth. But with millions of Hispanics added to its ranks, the GOP would gain a greater prize: an unbeatable, lasting electoral majority.

Tim Stanley is a historian at Oxford and a blogger for the Daily Telegraph. His latest book, The Crusader: the Life and Tumultuous Times of Pat Buchanan, is out now

  • Guest

    Aparently GOP stands for ‘Grand Old Party’ – had to google it!

  • ms Catholic state

    We need a Santorum in the UK.  Faith, Family and Freedom are needed to get Britain breathing again.  Our present political incumbents seem to hate all 3.

  • Brian A. Cook

     There are credible arguments that Rick Santorum cynically manipulates the Faith to promote his agenda.  Look at his alleged scoffing at environmental protection.  Look at his alleged scoffing at the poor who can’t seem to find help anywhere.  I would like to offer something from the “Huff and Puff Post.”

  • Brian A. Cook

    I do not want to see Mother Church linked so closely to the Republican Party that no one can no longer tell the difference and thus be provoked to attack both at once.

  • ms Catholic state

    Whatever Santorum is or isn’t…..I would rather him a thousand times than the present cabinet.  They are thrashing Christendom.

  • ms Catholic state

    And I happen to think Santorum is a great leader.  Full of charisma, conviction and vision.

  • diarmuidlee

    Catholics must tread carefully in politics. God and Caesar are two faces of the one coin. Politics and Faith should not get too cosy with each other.

  • Jeannine

    Excellent essay. But regarding the last paragraph, I take issue because there are many types of Latinos who live in America. For instance, Cuban-Americans & those other Latinos who own businesses & have “a stake in the game” generally vote Republican. Those poor immigrants who have not been catechized in their home country, especially from Mexico, have no moral strength to say “no”  to the immoral aspects of American society. As a result they have a high rate of births outside of marriage, high rates of teenage pregnancy, high rates of abortion, high rates of co-habitation w/out marriage, & average to low rates of mass attendance. They are perfect constituents for the Democratic Party, the party that promises entitlements & delivers.

  • Jeannine

    No, Santorum does not manipulate the Faith to promote his agenda. Good Catholics can disagree on how to implement a policy, except when it comes to abortion & euthanasia. They are always grave evils.

    Why don’t you go to his official website & read it instead of reading a poorly researched, secondary source, Huffington Post. See:
    BTW: I am not for or against Santorum.

  • gene euler

    this a reply to the whole article.  the republican party does have a majority of the church going catholics.  truth be told maybe that is only 20 to 25 percent who were born catholics.   they also have 100% of those born catholics who are rascists.  we hear from them in the immigration debate.  this leaves them far short of all catholics ,  church going and not church going.  the part that the catholic church could move the conservative republican party  to a humane conversation about immigrants,  have you watched the debates or listened to the speeches?  they have the party of the well to do, angry,  old white people    , and of course the rascists.  just look at their gatherings.  we are the wealthiest country God has allowed to be and we don’t have health care for our children.  jesus must shake his head in sadness.  

  • ms Catholic state

    In my opinion Santorum supporting Catholics are like Santorum himself….devout Catholics in good standing.  I have seen video clips of Santorum and he is very impressive.  Santorum is for freemarket health care and not government controlled health care which is very dangerous, with Obama using it as a weapon to smash the Catholic Church.  Stalin would have approved.

    With your apparent hatred of ‘angry old white people’  you seem to be the racist one.  Best to check that my friend.

  • ms Catholic state

    If anything the Church alligned herself too closely to the Democrat Party…..and look how that turned out.  The Democrats have wholeheartedly stabbed the Church in the back for all the hierarchy’s efforts. 

    And Rick Santorum is not the Catholic Church (the Church has not endorsed him).  He is a devout Catholic who happens to be an effective politician that Catholics in good standing can happily support.  A rare thing indeed.  Let’s hope we get more of them. God Willing.

  • ms Catholic state

    That may be true but Catholics are entitled to enter politics too you know.  We can’t leave everything to the godless.  Look how that turned out!

  • CluainArd

    The important distinction here is between those who are nominal Catholics (baptised but with no real connection with the Church usually since their teens) and practising Catholics who try to put into practice the teachings of the Church. Nominal Catholics are, in their majority, Democrats and have become indistinguishable from socially liberal Americans. Practising Catholics have been shifting their allegiance to the Republicans because the latter now defends the traditional family against gay ‘marriage’ and gay ‘rights’ as well as opposing abortion. So ‘Catholics’ as a voting group is quite divided.

  • paulsays

    Traditionally Catholics in America have voted Democrat. A lot of this was to do with their working class nature – being immigrants from Europe.
    In more recent elections Catholics have generally voted in-line with public opinion. Voting for Bush in 2000 and voting for Obama in 2008 for example.

    Democrats appeal to Catholics in terms of teaching on poverty and on providing healthcare and education for all citizens (surely laudable Catholic goals).

    Wheres Republicans are likely to appeal more of teaching on issues like abortion, and school prayer.

    I think where the author of this article fundamentally steps out of reality is that he assumes that the vast majority of Catholics disagree with gay-rights, contraception and abortion – and that these are willing to swing their vote.

    Whereas I think that a lot of this social teaching is either disagreed with (such as contraception in particular), and even if agreed with on, does not take precedent over other issues such as healthcare and education.

  • LotucusOP

    If he gets on board with the Church’s teaching on just war, then I’ll agree with you that he’s a breath of fresh air…..Otherwise he’s just another cafeteria Catholic – only his menu is different to what we see from most.

    On social issues though…He’s a world of improvement on your political incumbents.

  • ms Catholic state

    I’m sure Santorum is well aware of the Catholic Teaching on the Just War (I personally think the Afghan and Iraqi wars are complete disasters).  However I don’t think he is quite the raving war monger that he is portrayed.  I believe he is more nuanced than that. 

    Having said that….he certainly is no pushover. 

  • Oconnord

    Again this weekend he has proven that he’ll lose the nomination by his own hands. Instead of leaving the “JFK made me want to throw up” argument, which was just bad for his image with catholic voters, he resurrected the subject.

    In the gutter press, he was of course taken out of context, but he has now decided, years later, to clarify why the WW2 hero, war-avoiding, steely nerved, catholic, most popular modern American president was wrong. 

    And he does so by showing he doesn’t understand the amendments to his much valued constitution! 

    There is no such thing as a safe bet in american politics, but Romney does seem to be more likely now.  

  • paulsays

    Yes I think Romney is a sure bet – he has nearly double the delegates, and the states to follow are generally much more liberal.

    Not to sure why Santorum is continuing really… I can’t remember in detail the selection process at the party conference – other than knowing its complex.

    I’m guessing delegates can probably be re-allocated – ie: Gingrich’s delegates, probably would support Santorum.

    The Republican field is just so poor, gaff-prone and out of touch with what Americans want. If things stay as they are i would say that it is close to delusional to suggest that Obama won’t win a second term.

  • Honeybadger

    Santorum has rocked a few boats in the USA… which can only be a good thing!

    I can’t see Obama surviving a second term. He’s as much use as a waterproof sieve!

  • Honeybadger

    The Huffington Post is profoundly ANTI-CATHOLIC!

  • Oconnord

    There is one huge difference between Santorum and Romney.

     Thanks to “Superpacks” they are both ” bought and sold”.

    Romney is a marionette, on strings, but not under full control. Santorum is a puppet, with the hand right up there, ready to winch if he varies from the puppeteer. 

  • Brian A. Cook

     Surely it does not mean the EVERYTHING that is posts is wrong.  Besides, in this case Huffington Post is merely the messenger, reposting what someone else has written on another website.

  • sophie73

    I didn’t know before what kind of news huffingtonpost has and wandered there and found an article on pro-gay agenda. I made my charitable comment on the Church’s and of course Christ’s stand on homosexual act. I was overwhelmed and swamped by vile comments against the Church. Then I researched their other articles and lo and behold, I didn’t know I was in a pit of snakes literally! 

    So, Mr. Cook, sorry, once I hear a news story from Huffington post, I cringed because of my bitter experience. It’s an anti-Catholic news source. Period. 

  • sophie73

    “Out of touch with what Americans want”. There goes why the course of America should be correct because not American wants is what is needed or is the right one. What you want is what really God wants. 

    Gaffe-prone? It’s the media who tries to portray every move of the GOP gaffe. They magnify it! 

    Where is the outage the open-mic fiasco about the dealings Obama have with the arch-enemy, rival Russian? The media call it “gaffe” , I call it “treachery” in the making and should be further investigated! We should deman what it is that Obama really wants to do after the election that he can’t decide now with the Russians. 

  • paulsays

     The ‘rival Russian’ – I hope you realize that the Cold War is over! Its hardly treachery to say to the Russian premier that he wants to reduce the amount of missiles and nuclear missiles between the US and Russia.

    After all in the midst of the Cold War (when things were actually dangerous), it was the Republican Regan that created the first ‘start’ treaty to reduce nuclear arms between the nations, and a second Republican President – George Bush Snr. that signed it.

  • A follower not just a fan

    Apparently you have all FORGOTON what Jesus was trying to teach us and what our church was built on, and that is to love everybody teach them the right way and help the poor. Not judge people, that is for God only, Rrpublicans do nothing but judge everybody, few of then are true Catholic and Paul Ryan or Rick Santorium are differently not true Cstholics, look at there record on the poor and needed. And if you think that social issues are what we would worry about as Catholics, the oldest and closest faith to Jesus you should be ashamed of your self and read what Jeses taught, try to be a follower of Christ not just a fan,